Let’s start with the non-Marvel and DC books this week, since they have the greatest number and variety (and, often, quality). Instead of starting with the brand-new #1 issues, let’s do the reverse: we’ll lead with the highest-numbered books, the ones that have produced the most stories and survived the longest:
Dept.H #22 — Writer/Artist: Matt Kindt; Colors: Sharlene Kindt
Sex Criminals #21 — Writer: Matt Fraction; Art/Colors: Chip Zdarsky
Southern Bastards #19 — Writer: Jason Aaron; Art/Colors: Jason Latour
Forty-six issues is a lot, especially in today’s market, and even more especially for a cartoony comic about a bunch of sorta-Girl Scouts at a summer camp in a magical woods, but Lumberjanes, with its sharply-drawn characters, adventurous plots, and cogent themes about friendship and diversity and standing up for yourself, makes it look easy. Look at this week’s issue: it’s in the middle of a story, but you don’t have to know what’s going on; just read it and see if, at the end, you don’t want to spend more time with these people and see what happens to them next. Dept.H is a long one-story series, about a woman whose father dies at an undersea research outpost, six miles down; she goes there to investigate, and ends up trapped with all the suspects, who have what may or may not be a cure to a disease that may or may not be sweeping the surface world. The eerie, weightless underwater setting is a good match for Kindt’s dreamlike art, and made even more so by his wife Sharlene’s watercoloring; it’s an imaginative story with a very carefully worked out, multiple-perspective plot. That could be said of Sex Criminals, too; in Matt Fraction stories, everyone, even the adversaries and supporting characters, has complicated motives, and gets a little time to be heard — particularly right now, since the two title characters, Jon and Suzie, have broken up, and are wandering around telling all their friends they’re fine, and inadvertently running into each other at parties. That’s a necessary and well-told stage of the relationship, with a number of realistic little touches, but readers are left hanging until it’s resolved, so it’s not the best sampler issue — for that, read the first trade collection, to see how Fraction and Zdarsky’s wit, humor and brash deadpan approach to sex and relationships helped to turn this high-concept fantasy romcom into a hit. Southern Bastards is nearing the end of its third arc, and finally brings together Coach Boss, its villainous high-school football dictator, with the Marine daughter of the man he killed in the first arc; it’s redneck gothic noir, set deep in the armpit of Alabama, and if you like that kind of thing it’s an expert version of it. Monstress‘s genre (high-fantasy post-occult-apocalypse manga with Lovecraftian overtones) is very different, but presented just as expertly; Sana Takeda’s delicate art handles its various anthropomorphic hybrids — a fox-tailed girl; a talking multi-tailed cat; a beautiful sorceress engineer with antlers — with graceful precision. As quest stories through well-realized magical worlds go, it’s pretty good.
Maestros #4 — Writer/Artist: Steve Scroce; Colors: Dave Stewart
Betty and Veronica: Vixens #3 — Writer: Jamie Lee Rotante; Art: Eva Cabrera; Colors: Elaina Unge
Empowered #2 (of 6) — Writer: Adam Warren; Art: Carla Speed McNeil; Colors: Jean Manley Lee
Vinegar Teeth #1 — Writer: Damon Gentry and Troy Nixey; Art: Troy Nixey; Colors: Guy Major
It’s good to see Redneck, one of Donny Cates’s first comics series, still coming out from Image, even though he’s doing quite a bit of work for Marvel now, on both Doctor Strange and Thanos. The title’s a pun, referring to a family of vampires living in modern-day Texas, and it’s tough-minded, bloody and quite a bit of grim fun. Cates has taken a lesson from writers like Brian K. Vaughan and Robert Kirkman, and makes sure there are at least one or two WTF? moments — reveals, reversals or other elements to startle the reader — in every issue; it pays off in building a loyal readership, and harolds a bright future for his work. Maestros is about a 20-something Earthman whose mother married a universal despot/mage, and who was raised partly on Earth and partly in his father’s dog-eat-dog, alien-crammed court; now, his father has been killed, and he’s in charge — except for all the betrayals, backstabbing, usurpers and other problems. It’s got a very rich world and intriguing, smart characters, and Steve Scroce’s lush, detailed art makes it all look great. Betty and Veronica: Vixens is about those two Archie stalwarts starting an all-female motorcycle gang; there are reasons why the Riverdale guys aren’t involved, but it doesn’t really matter — the point is to get all the Riverdale girls into kick-ass, bike-riding, leathers-wearing mode, and between Jamie Lee Rotante’s girl-power script and Eva Cabrera’s indy-tinged art, it works. Archie’s been experimenting with its characters and their setting a lot the last few years (zombies? werewolves? future marriages? future deaths?), and more power to it — it energizes the now 75-year-old teens, and keeps them young. Empowered really belongs higher on this list, because it’s been around for over a decade — but mostly in a series of trades, and then a yearly one-shot or mini-series, so technically this is only the second issue of its current arc. It started out as a bondage comic, about a superheroine with low self-esteem whose powers came from her notoriously unreliable costume, which failed at the worst moments and left her defeated, bound and gagged by the bad guys. Warren’s much too good a creator for damsels-in-destress stereotypes, though, and over the years she’s developed a network of friends, overcome her insecurities (most of them…),, and gone from being a joke to the other superheroes to a quick-thinking, courageous grown-up who’s saved the world a couple of times. This year’s episode sees her and an old frenemy, another superheroine with occult powers, trapped in a hell that mimics their old high school, with all the mean girls trying to kill them; it’s just as smart, suspenseful, funny and empathetic as ever, and an incentive to check out all the other Empowered stories out there. Vinegar Teeth is for people who miss Eric Powell’s The Goon; Nixey has some of the same affinities for EC-type horror mixed with deadpan absurdity, and while he offers less punching (but more shooting), its shadowy, surreal world of outcasts, monsters and freaks has almost the same oomph. Abbot‘s creator, Saladin Ahmed, has been writing Marvel’s Black Bolt comic, and done the impossible by making me care about the Inhumans; his first arc on the silent king was a critical success, and drew a lot of comparisons to Tom King’s The Vision. It wasn’t that good, but it was intelligent and oddly moving, playing with comic book conventions in ways that let readers see them in new lights. Abbot is a ’70s-era B-movie book, about a black woman reporter in a Detroit rocked by murders, with the cops looking to pin them on the Black Panther Party. No shades of grey here — the good guys are noble, and the bad guys are racists — but that fits the genre, and there’s a supernatural element mixed in to keep things interesting; it’s one of those books with potential that may or may not become a hit, and so worth a look.
Legion #1 — Writer: Peter Milligan; Art: Wilfredo Torres; Colors: Dan Brown
Amazing Spider-Man #794 — Writers: Dan Slott and Christos Gage; Pencils: Stuart Immonen; Inks: Wade von Grawbadger; Colors: Marte Gracia
Thanos #15 — Writer: Donny Cates; Art: Geoff Shaw; Colors: Antonio Fabela
Avengers #677 — Writers: Mark Waid, Al Ewing and Jim Zub; Art: Pepe Larraz; Colors: David Curiel
Phoenix: Resurrection #4 (of 5) — Writer: Matthew Rosenberg; Art: Ramon Rosanas; Colors: Rachelle Rosenberg
Marvel’s kind of given up on their Inhumans books, except for the previously-mentioned Black Bolt and a coming Lockjaw mini-series, and this one-shot is meant to wrap up storylines and set up new ones, with the Progenitors — a super-race that created the Kree, and is kind of a mashup of the Celestials and the Borg –attacking the group’s home on the dark side of the moon. Writer Al Ewing showed his knack for uber-cosmic storylines during his run on Ultimates², and it works well here, while Mike del Mundo’s surreal, candy-colored painterly style matches it effectively; if you’ve been following Black Bolt or any of the other related comics, you’ll want this too. Legion follows Professor X’s multiple-personalities-with-superpowers son; he gets his own comic again because he’s the star of a TV series, naturally, and while I preferred Simon Spurrier’s take on him in his last incarnation (in X-Men Legacy), Peter Milligan’s made a career of writing about protagonists with, shall we say, problems with reality, and briskly, competently sets up the character and his situation in this first issue; fans of the TV show should feel reasonably at home. Amazing Spider-Man offers parallel stories: one to close off an old subplot about Scorpio, the zodiac-powered criminal, who got knowledge about the coming year’s worth of events, but was then trapped in another dimension, unable to exploit it… oh, just about a year ago; meanwhile, two bad guys use the confusion to rob a high-tech government storage facility made to house super-powerful artifacts — and turn out to be working for Spidey’s most implacable foe, one who’s now powerless but looking to get back into the game. That will lead to Dan Slott’s final spider-arc, the run-up to the web-slinger’s 800th issue, so it’s a good time to check in. Thanos is one of Donny (Redneck) Cates’s Marvel books. He’s been dealing with the problem of what to do with an ultra-powerful cosmic bad guy by having him encounter his far-future self, ruler of a mostly-lifeless universe and still trying to impress his old paramour, Death, while fending off a foe he needs his younger self’s help with; sure enough, it’s got a couple of those WTF? moments, and does a good job of making us care about an uncaring villain. Black Panther‘s not a bad issue, but it does a bad thing — see that cover, with all those Avengers and X-Men and other heroes on it, up to the right there? None of them appear in this issue. Hell, the Panther doesn’t even appear, except in one panel; instead, the action takes place in Klaw’s command center, where that sound-powered bad guy is trying to resurrect his sister. That means he’s using his power dialed up to 11, so the whole issue is a silent fight, reminiscent of those “Nuff Said” special issues Marvel did in the early ’00s, as Aneka and Ayo, the two Midnight Angels his forces captured an issue or two ago, break free and raise havoc. It’s a good episode, clever and fast-paced, and it sets up the bigger battle/confrontation to come next month very well — but, man, how many readers won’t notice because they’re so irritated at the bait-and-switch? Bad decisions like that reflect badly on a book’s editor. Avengers continues its weekly-epic six-issue “Who Stole the Planet?” story, with the spotlight on Pietro but a whole bunch of other heroes and villains clashing; it’s intricately-plotted, colorful and about as good as one of these multi-player slugfests gets. Phoenix: Resurrection has a lot of characters, too — all mutants — as they try to prevent the Phoenix Force from bonding with the older, long-missing Jean Grey. Artist Rosanas gets a couple of effective splashes near the end (giant flaming birds lend themselves to dramatic art), and this does its job; these weekly series’ biggest advantage continues to be that there’s no time for us to get bored.
Doom Patrol #10 — Writer: Gerard Way; Pencils: Nick Derrington; Inks: Tom Fowler; Colors: Tamra Bonvillain
The Ruff and Reddy Show #4 (of 6) — Writer: Howard Chaykin; Art/Colors: Mac Rey
Doomsday Clock continues to evoke Watchmen almost exactly — Gary Frank’s art looks and feels a lot like Dave Gibbons, and he doesn’t even seem to be doing it deliberately; it’s just that their styles are so similar anyway, and the nine-panel grid accentuates it. The story has Batman meeting the new Rorschach, Ozymandias fighting a not-as-dead-as-we-thought Comedian, and other fan service; it’s all well done (and might cause a run on Nathaniel Dusk comics, which, since they have Gene Colan art, would be a good thing), but I have a feeling that, in keeping with the title reference, we’ll all be looking at our watches before this is done, wondering when it’s going to be over (and, if I were betting, I’d say not until 2019…). Doom Patrol has had a similarly-drawn-out history in Gerard Way’s tenure (it’s managed ten issues since its debut in September 2016, sixteen months ago); there’s some eye-catching design and coloring work by Derrington/Fowler/Bonvillain, and callbacks to Grant Morrison’s earliest stories, but a lot of readers are going to have to strain to remember what’s going on, and it’s not exactly a linear story anyway. Gonna make a killer trade, though. The Ruff and Reddy Show is a deeply cynical and funny (and, occasionally, and against its will, empathetic) Hollywood satire involving “celimates,” animated characters who live in the real world; the title duo are a cross between The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys, and their dialogue and scenes by Howard Chaykin have an insider’s winking ring of truth.